Burhan Sönmez on the tensions between politics and art in Turkey

The capital of the Turkish presidential election, whose second round will take place on Sunday, has more than geopolitical consequences; it is also a turning point for culture. Since 2016, after a failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the government has cracked down on artists, writers, filmmakers and scholars, who have experienced censorship, job losses and a climate of fear.

For novelist Burhan Sönmez, who is part of the country’s Kurdish ethnic minority, the upheavals of the Erdogan years are just the latest chapter in an ongoing struggle between Turkish power and Turkish art.

Born outside Ankara in 1965, where his first language was Kurdish, he worked as a human rights lawyer but went into exile in Britain after a police attack. He has written five novels, including the award-winning “Istanbul Istanbul”, “Labyrinth” and “Stone and Shadow”, recently released in English by Other Press. His novels delve into imprisonment and memory, with echoes of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Jorge Luis Borges.

Sönmez now lives in Istanbul and Cambridge, and in 2021 he was appointed chairman of PEN International, where he has been a strong advocate for freedom of expression in Turkey and elsewhere.

I spoke to Sönmez via video a few days after the first round of the Turkish general election, in which Erdogan finished half a point short of an absolute majority. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Istanbul has always been a city of arrivals. When did you first come here?

During the era of the military coup, the 1980s. I was born and raised in a small village in central Turkey. It’s in the middle of the countryside, like a desert village, without electricity. I moved to Istanbul to study law, and the next phase of my life began after my exile in Britain. So now I can combine these different spaces – small village, big Istanbul and then Europe. They all come together and sometimes separate.

Often, there is an indeterminacy of setting in your novels, not only of geography but of time. You rarely use the obvious tech or current affairs information that some authors use to anchor a reader in time.

Particularly in my novel “Istanbul, Istanbul”, I did not indicate a specific year or period when the events take place. When people read it, everyone feels that it is the story of their generation.

For better and for worse !

Yes. But, you know, only a naive writer would be proud of that. You would say, “OK, I reflect the feelings of different generations in one novel. In fact, it comes from the society itself in Türkiye. Each generation has gone through the same suffering, the same problems, the same oppression, the same pain. It is therefore not a literary talent, in fact, to bring all these eras together in a single story.

In “Istanbul, Istanbul”, the narrators are prisoners, held without charge in underground cells, who tell stories. What their stories overall sketch is a sort of dreamy Istanbul, where freedom is always curtailed but which freethinkers and artists remain madly in love with.

It really started in the 1850s, when the first liberal intellectuals were oppressed by the Ottoman sultan and went into exile in Europe. When we look at this history in time, 150 or 170 years, we see that in each decade, governments have used the same methods of oppression against writers, journalists, academics, intellectuals.

But the tradition of oppression has also created a tradition of resistance. And now look: after 20 years of Erdogan’s rule, almost half of society is still firmly against him. We haven’t finished. This is partly our story of resistance.

Turkey, like America, has a strong political fault line between the cities and the countryside. But your novels have traveled from Istanbul to rural Anatolia and vice versa.

Especially in my last novel, “Stone and Shadow”, I wrote about this, comparing the eastern, central and western part of Turkey over the past 100 years.

What is the difference between life in a small village in rural Turkey and in Istanbul? You could say it’s the difference between living in a little hut with a gas lamp and living on a street with flashing neon lights. Two different worlds, two different times.

But you have to understand: Istanbul is now also part of rural Turkey. There has been a huge migration from the countryside. When I went to study in Istanbul, the population was around five million. Now it’s 17 million. It’s not easy for a big city to create a new citizen, a new cultural spirit.

In this regard, one of the most disturbing themes of this election has been the demonization around refugees. I wonder how that sounds to you, as a former refugee yourself.

What is sad for Turkey now is that we have seen a new rise of nationalism – in the color of racism, in fact – against immigrants. There is open racism against Syrians and Afghans in Turkey. And each side, each political platform, has different ways of legitimizing that.

Right-wing people say, “These people are underdeveloped Arabs. It’s an upside-down race.” From secular progressives you hear, “Oh, these are right-wing Islamist militants. They’re here to support Erdogan and invade our country, to make it an Islamic republic. In any case, racism or hatred of immigrants is at the top of the list.

Nationalism now dominates almost all political movements.

Yet there is a rare levity and freedom in your characterization of these political themes. “Labyrinth”, the story of a musician who loses his memory after jumping into the Bosphorus, barely hints at the upheavals of the Erdogan years, when the amnesiac sees a torn poster of the president and takes him for a sultan.

We know the difference between art and journalism. Journalism speaks directly. By speaking this different language of art, we feel that we are no longer in the field of society, of politics. A political question or a historical fact is only a color in my novel. This is real power. When I write a novel, I have the impression of uniting the past and the future. Because the past is a story and the future is a dream.

Has there been self-censorship of artists and writers in Turkey in recent years?

Well, firstly, every year more than 500 new Turkish novels are published. When I was in university, the number of new novels published in Turkish was around 15 or 20. That’s a huge difference.

With the younger generation, I see that they are brave. Despite all this oppression, this danger of going to prison or being unemployed, young people write without fear. They write about Kurdish issues, about women’s issues, about LGBT issues, about political crimes in Turkey.

Hundreds of writers are like that: writing openly, and at some point a little dangerously, for themselves. This is something we should be proud of.

As President of PEN International, you have a particularly close view of the state of freedom of expression. Have things improved in Turkey since the 2016-2017 crackdown, when thousands of academics and journalists were arrested or purged?

No, no, it’s not better. In Turkey, we have never been able to distinguish between bad and good. It was always: bad or worse.

In Türkiye, PEN International supports writers in prison. For my part, being a lawyer, I have the possibility of going to prisons. Every time I go to Turkey I use this perk. I go there and I see Selahattin Demirtas, or Osman Kavala, so many people. It’s sad to see that great people are still in prison.

But it’s also great to see that we stick together. At the end of my novel “Istanbul, Istanbul”, I used an epigraph from a medieval Persian Sufi. He said, “Hell is not the place where we suffer, it is the place where no one hears us suffer.” I know that if I am arrested, I will never be left alone.

I probably shouldn’t ask you what you expect when the Turks vote in the presidential runoff next Sunday. …

No, you should ask. I think we will win. I am too optimistic in life, and very naive.

nytimes Eur

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